Published:  12:00 AM, 12 February 2017

A marketplace for ideas

'Evolution of Economic Ideas: Smith to Sen and Beyond' by Vinay Bharat-Ram, Publisher- Oxford University Press, in November 2016

Ashwini Deshpande deciphers an enterprising glimpse into the fascinating world of economic thoughts by the writer

To (poorly) paraphrase the famous and oft-quoted couplet from Alice in Wonderland, this volume is about "Smith, Marx, Keynes and Sen, and why the Great Depression happened, and whether robots will reign".

 To trace the history of economic thought through a commentary on the evolution of the international economy over the last 200 years is no mean task. The author deserves to be applauded for the sheer enterprise, and for crafting a small glimpse into the grand world of economic ideas.

 The volume is written in a conversational style, each chapter peppered with questions (real or presumed) from students, followed by answers. Perhaps, this volume grew through classroom lectures, which might explain the format. 

The volume is a slim one, and given the large time horizon it covers, each chapter is short, more a teaser to the thinker that it addresses, rather than an in-depth analysis of his thoughts. The use of the pronoun "his" in the previous sentence is deliberate - all the thinkers addressed are men, the brief reference to Joan Robinson notwithstanding.

 This is not the author's fault, but it reflects the nature of the discipline through the 19th and a large part of the 20th centuries.  A perhaps inevitable issue that would arise in a volume of this kind is the choice of economists whose work is seminal enough to be discussed.

This choice is tough, and gets increasingly complicated, the closer one inches towards contemporary times. The choice of the three development economists discussed in the book perhaps illustrates this dilemma.

The author discusses Arthur Lewis, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, two Nobel Prize winners and a third, who has not been so fortunate, along with a relatively large reference to Meghnad Desai's work. The choice of these four names as a collective is not intuitively obvious and the author does not explain the logic that guided this selection.

At this point, the book appears to fall between two stools - is it a presentation of ideas of some key economists, or a commentary on the evolution of the discipline of economics through or interwoven with major landmarks in the evolution of the international economy, culminating in the early decade of the 21st century?

Development economics is a vast and rapidly growing field. The questions that this field concerns itself with are multiple and multi-faceted. It would have been instructive to focus on the large questions in this field with references to the several excellent and seminal contributions to the major debates.

For instance, the basic question in development economics stems from growth theory - what makes some countries grow faster and others slower? Are countries moving towards one another in terms of growth rates, or not? This is linked to the relationship between growth and inequality - another central concern of development. 

Similarly, the role of international trade, indeed of globalization, in mediating economic inequality (another central question with development economics) both between and within nations is a key contemporary issue, as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President demonstrates.

Here again, there are a number of seminal contributions, including, but going beyond, Thomas Piketty, to whose book the author makes a reference, which ought to have been discussed.

Overall the volume reminds us why the history of economic thought is fascinating. If it encourages to explore further and to cultivate a historical perspective on contemporary issues, it would have served its purpose.

The reviewer is a professor of economics, Delhi University

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